Remembering the Lives of Three Great Oak Lawn Saints

Over the past three weeks, Oak Lawn United Methodist Church lost three of its wonderful saints: Tommy Nance, Marietta Ragsdale, and Bryan Clark. It's been a difficult time for us, saying goodbye to such amazing people. I had three privilege of knowing all three well, since I served the Oak Lawn church as an intern and Associate Pastor many years ago, before returning last summer as Senior Pastor. For those unable to attend any of the services, or if these words are any comfort to those still grieving such losses, I have included here my words of remembrance from each service.

Tommy Nance, Restland Funeral Home, 
December 22, 2011

Thomas William Nance, Sr., long time resident of Dallas, TX., passed away on December 18, 2011 in Dallas. He was preceded in death by his wife of 56 years, Dell Emmalee Nance. He was born on May 31, 1919 in Dallas to Mr. and Mrs. C. S. Nance.

He is survived by his four children, Patricia D. Flores, Thomas W. Nance, Jr., Donald L. Nance and Robert L. Nance, their spouses, five grandchildren, other family members and friends. He served in the U. S. Army during World War II in the Pacific. He was wounded in action while serving as a Staff Sergeant in the 112th Cavalry in New Britain. He received the Purple Heart. He was also an active member and officer of the Retired Members of the 112th Cavalry.

Tommy lived a simple life, devoted to the things he cared most about: his faith, his family, his work and hobbies, his country. He shared those typical “Greatest Generation” traits of devotion, dedication, and commitment. Having lived through the Great Depression he knew the value of money and understood that nothing could be taken for granted. He was suspicious of outward displays of what we would call a successful life—like when his son Tom showed him his new house. Tommy asked, “Why do you need this?” Tom gave his best answer: “Because I can.” Tommy replied: “That’s not good enough.”

Tommy had great skills in the woodshop of his garage, where he made treasures for children and grandchildren, even for church auction fundraisers. A wooden duck that wobbled was a particular favorite—it was mentioned several times the other night by  family members. Or one piece of furniture Tommy made had been sanded so much that it would not take the finish—so he had to rough it up a bit. 

He loved to work outdoors, even affixing a floodlight to his lawnmower so he could work after dark. He took tremendous pride in yardwork, and his kids could always sense a little disappointment when their yards did not live up to his standards! There was a great story about building a deck with his son-in-law. Tommy was in his 60s and Larry in his 30s, but you wouldn’t have guessed it by who worked the hardest in 100+ temps. As Larry put it, reflecting upon the beautiful, newly finished deck: “I was amazed at what I could push my body to do to avoid being embarrassed by a man twice my age.”

He was a perfectionist who believed in doing everything one way: the right way. If the kids struggled with homework he would insist they stay at the table until every math problem was answered correctly. If they protested with those great homework existential questions like, “When will I ever use this?” He would respond with, “You will.”  Someone said when Tommy locked up the office at work he had a look of pride on his face like he owned it. And in a way he did.

He had a love of music that spanned his whole life, from playing in the band at halftimes of football games—where he played on the team also—to playing classical music in his workshop, singing in the Oak Lawn Church choir, or the Dallas Male Chorus.
And he was a great patriot, serving in the 112th Cavalry in the Pacific during WWII, where he was wounded, receiving the Purple Heart.

He was a devoted husband to Dell for more than 50 years. I loved the memory of Tommy leaving potted plants and flowers on the patio where she could enjoy them from her wheelchair. He faithfully took care of her during her declining health.
The most poignant moment for me the other night came when Tom spoke about his sort of rebellious youth, when he and Tommy would spar over late nights out with friends. Tom would come home late and his dad would say, “Nothing good ever happens after midnight.” Tom’s eyes began to water a little bit remembering that, and I asked him: “Thinking about it at your age now, what do you think?” Tom said, “I’d say he’s right.”

There are great lessons to be learned from Tommy’s life. Commitment. Faithfulness. Fidelity. Generosity. We can look upon toys or furniture he made and remember him. Treasure those tangible reminders of Tommy's skill and creativity. But more importantly, remember his great faith, which, by nature, is intangible. Imitate his faith. Tommy endured many trials throughout his life, but his faith never wavered, and he never complained. He accepted whatever challenges he faced with confidence. Whether it was a war wound that afflicted him for more than 65 years, or nursing his beloved wife for her last nine years, Tommy could witness to one of the great promises of scripture: Nothing can separate us from God's great love in Christ Jesus.

“The Lord is my Shepherd. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He restores my soul.” Tommy is now resting in the green pastures of the Lord, perhaps making sure they are up to his high standards. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. I go to a make a place for you.” Tommy now has been resurrected by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.” Tommy has taken his place among the great company of the saints of light, whose enduring witness continues to inspire those of us who remain in our earthly life. These are some of the comforting words of promise and hope our faith gives us. We can celebrate this day, even in the midst of our grief, because Tommy has fully realized these promises. He has been welcomed home by a loving God and a resurrected Lord. And the same promises are for each of us.

It was mentioned the other night how much Dell and Tommy loved Christmas, and how it is sort of appropriate that he would die at this time of year. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas in a few days, surrounded by family and friends, may we all reflect upon the goodness and faithfulness of God, who gives us wonderful gifts: life, faith, each new day, and fathers, grandfathers, husbands, and friends such as Tommy Nance.

Marietta Ragsdale, Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, January 3, 2012 

There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die...
Marietta Lucas Ragsdale was born December 22, 1920 in Grand Prairie, Texas and was received into God’s arms on December 29, 2011.  Marietta was a descendant of a proud Texas family who came to Texas in the mid 1840’s.  Marietta worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and was one of the first women to be promoted to manager.  She worked as a realtor with Matisse Realtors until she retired at the age of 85.  Marietta is preceded in death by her father Henry J. Lucas and mother Anna Lucas, sisters; Eunice Harris, Juanita Baldwin and Louise Lucas and brothers; Guy Lucas, James Conroy (Mike) Lucas and Reed Lucas.  Marietta is survived by many nephews and nieces, as well as many great nieces and nephews, and many friends.

The other day Christy and I were in Target when I remembered a call I had missed an hour before. The message said Marietta was rushed to the hospital and was not expected to survive long. We were in Houston, so it was impossible for me to visit. I told Christy the news, and our hearts sank; Marietta was dear to both of us. Christy and our boys had just visited Marietta in her apartment on Christmas Eve, where James, Miles, and Linus treated her with Christmas cookies and sang songs. A few days before that Marietta was here for a Saints Alive Christmas program and lunch. She had invited a couple of her caregivers to the event, and we sat at the same table and enjoyed a meal together. My mom happened to be in town, dropping our boys off here after a couple of days of fun in Dallas. I introduced mom to Marietta. Pointing at me, Marietta said, "He's mine." Mom agreed to share. It was the last time I saw Marietta alive. 
There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to plant and a time to uproot,  a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time for war and a time for peace.

Marietta weathered many seasons during her life. She grew up in the Great Depression. She knew need and poverty. One time during a spiritual study we took together, she mused that people today may well need another Great Depression to learn to appreciate what they have and know something of dealing with challenges. She certainly faced her own. But she approached whatever season with grace, perseverance, and hope. She never abandoned her lifelong pursuit of knowledge. In that spiritual study  group with Marietta, we discussed all different angles and practices of faith. She loved every moment. Her curiosity was rampant. Last summer I visited her in her home and she asked me how I understood heaven. I told her the truth- I didn't have all the answers, and I am always suspicious of those who claim to understand everything fully. But, I said, I am confident it will be so much more than we could ever conceive of. Words would not be able to describe it. That answer was good enough for Marietta. She embraced the unknown without fear. Today, she has all those answers, and we are left to do the asking and wondering. Good for her!

There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to weep and a time to laugh…
Marietta was a proud woman of style. On Christmas Eve when I called about the boys visiting she said, "But I’m on my way to the beauty shop." when I assured her they would not be there until afternoon, she was excited for the visit. She always looked great and her home was immaculate.  Appearances mattered. But she was also a woman of great substance. She was, as many of us would know, one of a kind. She had just celebrated her 91st birthday last week. She was, in her own words, "A 91 year old one legged woman." Marietta also had a wicked sense of humor. Her comments, if spoken aloud, could break uncomfortable silences or brighten up a dreary discussion. But it was the under the breath comments that would shock you, coming from the self described 91 year old one legged woman. She would not hold back her opinions, prejudices, or expectations. If she disapproved, look out. Any conversation with Marietta had the potential to be hilarious, offensive, uplifting, inquisitive. Sometimes in the same sentence!

 There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to kill and a time to heal,
  a time to tear down and a time to build…

Marietta was faithful. She lovingly took care of her sister Louise for many years near the end of Louise’s life. She was a faithful member of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church for many years. She was brave and strong. One time after a fall she waited for hours until someone discovered her. She was never despondent about her health. She could bounce back from just about any challenge she faced. She was, as someone said yesterday, a role model.  There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to love and a time to hate…

 Those of us who knew her well could speak of her loving spirit. As she kissed Christy goodbye last Christmas Eve, she said, "Love you good." After or before every Sunday morning service, she would hug me and say, "Love your heart." everything has its season. Today is a season to love. We celebrate Marietta’s love,which has its origins in God’s love for her—and for us. We give thanks for God's love revealed to us in such a powerful way in Jesus Christ. God's love is most powerfully revealed at Christmas, one of Marietta's favorite seasons, so it is fitting she should die during the week around Christmas, when she celebrated her Lord's birth, as well as her own. Today we celebrate her resurrection as well.  There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to mourn and a time to dance…

On their visit to her apartment, Miles asked, as six year olds are likely to do, what happened to Marietta's leg. She replied, "I lost it, but it's OK." That was the way she looked at life. If God asked her right now in heaven about her earthly life, she may well say, "I lost it, but it's OK." No, it's better than OK. We all know that death is as much a part of the rhythm of earthly life as anything else- that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. But everything has its season in time. As we mourn today, Marietta dances. And even as we grieve, we dance for Marietta, as the promises she so faithfully embraced in her earthly life are fulfilled in her heavenly life. Marietta and I shared a love for THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, which Bill sang. Today, we can confidently say that Marietta has indeed seen "the glory of the coming of the Lord." Her soul has answered him, her feet are jubilant. She has experienced the glory of his bosom that transfigures you and me. And as God's truth and day confidently march on, so does Marietta march on, in glory. She now shines as a saint of light. Love you good, Marietta. Love your heart. 

Bryan Clark, Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, 
January 14, 2012

Bryan Leland Clark was born February 14, 1926, and died January 6, 2012. Bryan was a proud Texan and a graduate of Texas Tech University. He served in the United States Marine Corps 1944-1946 and was present when the iconic flag was raised over Iwo Jima. He worked for many years at the National Automobile Theft Bureau (NATB) and was appointed a Special Texas Ranger.  Bryan was an active volunteer for many years at Methodist Hospital of Dallas, serving as President of the Auxiliary.  He is survived by his beloved wife Reba, his cousin Sharon Nelson and her husband Michael, and special friends Lynda and James Cagle. He was a loving uncle to Tom and Julie Clark.

If you didn't know Bryan well, as I was fortunate to know him, you missed out on a great opportunity. I have never known anyone like him. When I was a kid, I had a full set of Encyclopedia Brittanica. I used to pull a volume off the shelf randomly and just start reading. If I ever read anything from an encyclopedia about sports, Texas geography, military service, or police work, it would have been incomplete. Bryan had an incredible amount of knowledge and he never missed a beat. Counties in TX. I used to tease him. I would pull out a map and start naming them randomly. He knew every county seat town. He had some kind of story to go with it- someone he hunted down for stealing a car in San Antonio. Someone who had a real shot at Major League baseball but was injured. Somehow, and I am only mildly exaggerating, Bryan knew every thing about everyone.

He and James Cagle were together all the time talking about sports, sometimes watching and playing and talking sports at the same time. Last week I walked in to the room and they were talking about Oklahoma and Rice players. Bryan sort of drifted in and out, but somehow kept up with the conversation. Baseball, football, golf, basketball. If a player came from TX- or ever played in TX- Bryan knew him and could tell you  about his high school and college career. Bryan knew all six of those guys who raised the iconic flag over Iwo Jima. I've been reading the book FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS at home. One day I called him at home and mentioned t. He named every one of the six and remembered a story about each one. He knew JD Tippit, the DPD officer Lee Harvey Oswald shot before he shot JFK. And if you are wondering,  he was convinced Oswald did it alone. He never forgot anything. He wanted me to speak about a trip he and I made to Houston years ago-something about my truck overheating on the way to an Astros game- but I don't remember! I was about 28; he was about 70. And he remembered the story.

If you were ever a part of the Oak Lawn Church, you knew Bryan- and he certainly knew you. He knew the building's secrets like no one else, giving countless tours, sharing memories. He and his tag team partner Truitt Brinson will always e remembered as two of the most influential members of this grand congregation. Bryan liked to talk about a certain church he and Reba worshiped at in Houston many years ago. When he volunteered to be an usher, he was told, seriously, that someone had to die first. Here, Bryan and Truitt held court every Sunday. For what seems like forever, one or both would greet every single person who was a guest. And not just a "hi, here's a bulletin." They both genuinely cared about who you were, where you were from, what you did for a living. When one of them called during the week to invite you back to church, they sincerely looked forward to seeing you and shaking your hand when you joined the church. Those guys were so effective here that an entire group of young couples and singles who burst upon the Oak Lawn scene in the late 90s changed its name from the adolescent and generic "Young Adults" group to the "Brinson-Clark Class." Many will tell you the biggest single influence of their becoming part of the Oak Lawn family was the work of these men. They are Christy's and my dearest friends. Without Bryan and Truitt's influence, that may not have been the case. So at every Christmas party, birthday, or baptism, there's an element of Bryan and Truitt there.

When you heard Bryan speak of the things and people that were dearest to him, it was impossible to miss out on the pride and the gratitude he felt. His devoted love for Reba. His thankfulness for the fidelity of James and Lynda Cagle as his health declined. His joy when Sharon and Michael joined their United Methodist church- he hoped he had some role in that (you know he did !). And the renovations of the church. He and Reba first got to see everything on Christmas Eve- he acted like it was the greatest gift he had ever received. The way he spoke about Oak Lawn you'd think he experienced heaven within these walls. At our last one on one time together, he spoke about his hope that he would be remembered around here. Summoning up my years of experience and theological training, my response was, "Oh, please." I told him one thing I have learned upon my return to OLUMC was that no one ever forgets anyone here- and no one ever really leaves this place. You may move to another congregation, but Oak Lawn always feels like home. Bryan Clark made that kind of impact on people. And now he has taken his place among the great, enduring witness of the Oak Lawn saints.

Lynda told me Bryan said he strove to be honorable in all things. He wanted to be remembered as an honorable man. It's hard for me to think of a single adjective to better sum up Bryan's life. Growing up in West TX, serving in WWII, being a loving, cool uncle, dedicated to his work, devoted to his wife, committed to his church, secure in his faith, fearless when facing the transition from earthly to eternal life. In all things Bryan Clark was an honorable man.

"In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. I go to prepare a place for you." "The Lord is my Shepherd. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters." Truitt Brinson died in November 2010, and Bryan told Christy recently how much he still missed his evangelistic partner. If there is a heavenly welcome wagon, it got a boost 15 months ago, and today it runs on all cylinders. We buried Bryan's earthly body the other day with a brief graveside service that includes different  prayers than we use today: "For all that Bryan has given us to make us who we are, we give you thanks."